HOUSTON — North Carolina coach Roy Williams took the podium at NRG Stadium late Saturday night and offered a poignant message. After an 83–66 blowout of Syracuse in the national semifinal, Williams mentioned some prominent members of the North Carolina family who recently died, including ESPN anchor Stuart Scott and former coaches Dean Smith and Bill Guthridge. He then offered a sweet and sincere message: "They're up there smiling somewhere and having a good time."
Before the moment even had a chance to resonate, Williams's thin-skinned alter-ego appeared. He transitioned from a touching tribute to an awkward rant about retirement that concluded with the line: "Don't ask me that stupid question."
There's been a dichotomy that's defined Williams during this season and especially this postseason. The good ol' "daggum" Ned Flanders image he's worked so hard to cultivate over the decades has clashed with a Williams who appears increasingly combative. This hypersensitive side has made appearances over the years (like when he told then-CBS reporter Bonnie Bernstein after his Kansas team lost to Syracuse in the 2003 national title game that he "didn't give a s--- about North Carolina"), but this season and especially postseason, it has taken a starring role. He doesn't want to address retirement and doesn't want to delve into the academic scandal that has hung over the program, impacted recruiting and damaged the university's reputation the past few years. He also doesn't think questions about Carolina's ACC schedule are valid and doesn't think the ACC's partner, ESPN, should be talking about college basketball players "in the freaking green room," a reference to their potential as NBA draft picks.
Williams certainly has the right to be critical of the media, but twice here in Houston he's followed up his critiques by admitting that he hasn't read or seen what he's criticizing. Williams has one of the Cadillac jobs in college basketball, and with it comes the occasional thorny question. When asked specifically why he has the right to dictate what's asked of him, Williams smiled and said, "Good question. I don't have a great answer."
And then he answered. And answered again. And again. What followed was Folksy Roy shadow-boxing with Thin Skinned Roy, his idealism sparring at times with realism. He eventually concluded that he didn't agree with the premise of the question, as his ire over a potential retirement question came only after Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said he hoped the media asked Williams about it as well.
Some of Williams's points were valid, as he spoke about the fragmented media landscape and how harmful messages can spread quickly. Others were conflicted, as he said that same landscape makes him both more cautious and more willing to take a stand.
"I guess just being a human being," Williams said. "That's all right. I've been asked five times since the ACC tournament, at least, if I was going to retire. So in today's time of social media, why in the dickens can't people get that information without feeling like they have to ask it themselves?
"For two and a half years I've been asked about the other stuff. I've answered it the same way every year. In today's times, why do I have to repeat the same thing?"
Last Thursday, Williams tried to dissuade reporters from asking about the NCAA investigation into academic fraud at North Carolina. "Jimmy and I had to answer this same question together this morning," he said, referencing Boeheim and the Orange's own NCAA issues. "Hopefully we won't have to answer it continually while we're here."
Williams is actively trying to avoid the two topics—retirement and the NCAA investigation—that are among the most important surrounding his program and university. Williams is 65, has ailing knees and passed out on the court this year during a game at Boston College. He appears to cringe with every step. If you struggle to walk and have battled vertigo for two decades and are at retirement-appropriate age, people are going to ask if you are ready to retire. This is not some grand conspiracy; it's common sense. People want to know about the future of a Hall of Fame coach in his twilight. And they'll always want to know.
As for North Carolina's NCAA issues, the university is ensnared in one of the biggest scandals in recent NCAA history. It has an overreaching impact on North Carolina as an athletic department and a university; the school is accused of lack of institutional control and impermissible benefits. Until that issue is resolved, it is fair game.
Williams's thin skin, to use his own words, has been on full display in Houston. But he outdid himself late Saturday night by barking at a reporter who second-guessed him in a postgame press conference.
"I'm a hell of a lot smarter about basketball than you guys are. I mean, I'm serious. What do you do after basketball season is over with? You cover baseball. What do you do after baseball? You cover football. I don't take any breaks."
Williams, of course, is right. And in fairness, he began by saying he didn't intend to offend anyone. Certainly, few would argue with his premise. But that he felt compelled to point that out is only topped by what he followed up with. "This year I heard more than ever announcers and writers question things more than I ever heard." He then undermined himself by saying, "I haven't read very much this year, to be honest with you. I haven't read many articles."
Williams can't have it both ways, as a media critic with any credibility must at least read or watch what he's criticizing. Williams perhaps best contradicted himself near the end of his rant about his basketball critics Saturday night when he said: "I would never criticize somebody about something that they know a heck of a lot more about."
Ultimately, the retirement questions aren't going away until, well, retirement. The NCAA questions won't stop until the NCAA decides how UNC will be punished. Until then, Williams should leave the questions to those who know a hell of a lot more about journalism.